China, the Renovation Nation

I wrote this piece about five years ago. It’s a dark piece, and came out of a dark time in my life — when I experienced a lot of renovation around the place I lived in Shanghai, and was grappling with what to do with my future. If you’re having some dark days (from weather, life, or even holiday blues), this is for you.

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Across the street from my gym, there is a clothing store for infants and toddlers. I know it well because I always park my generic, cement-gray bicycle right next to its display window, lit up with the tender image of some darling baobei sporting the latest in baby fashion – an odd foil to my ugly wheels.

I began to notice how the windows became plastered by screaming yellow signs promising deep bargains. Fifty, 60, 70, 80 percent off! Like lichen covering a rock, they even obscured the front showroom and finally that trusty display window. Inside the store, free-for-all bins sloppily loaded with clothes had replaced the racks and models.

There they were – all of the telltale signs of store renovation.

And sure enough, for weeks afterwards I parked right next to a work-in-progress. I saw the team of workers, night after night, navigate the noxious fumes and the symphony of drills, saws and chains in what I feared might foretell the end of retailing of infant and toddler clothes on Danshui Road as I knew it.

One night, I saw those workers in the middle of the half-finished store. The décor captured that feeling of newborn innocence. Whitewashed walls, floors and shelves; a pastel painting of imaginary elephants with a poem about the joys of being a child. The men stood there smoking cigarettes, as though they were in a bar, and sullied the floor with ashes and spit. Well, I suppose if babies are born with original sin, then stores for babies are no different.

I never really saw renovation like this, in all of its glory, mystery and (in some cases) malevolence, until I came to China. Continue reading “China, the Renovation Nation”